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Oakland Schools Report Fewer Dropouts, Higher Reading Levels With 'Restorative Justice'

OAKLAND (KPIX 5) – The Oakland Unified School District is reporting good results with a new approach to discipline. Instead of punishing students, they are forcing them to face their issues, head on.

At Edna Brewer Middle School, suspensions are down considerably, only 4 so far this year, compared to about 18 at this time last year. Principal Sam Pasarow credits a new system called restorative justice.

KPIX 5 sat down with six peer mediators who showed how restorative justice works. Instead of the kneejerk reaction of suspending a student for something like fighting, they're sent to a circle.

"We bring those two people into a room, along with witnesses that have seen the fights to share their side of what happened," said Jasmine Vo, a student at Edna Brewer Middle.

They also deal with bullying and social media issues.

"Usually people are really willing to talk about it," said students Julia Hopkins.

Student Simon Sotomey recalled, "Last year we had a conflict where two people got in a fight. To this day I see them hanging around each other."

Oakland Unified said restorative justice is working district-wide. After ten years of gradual implementation, the district released its first report that points to results: creating a sense of community at schools has dropped absenteeism, increased reading levels and reduced dropout rates. It's also fairer.

"Clearly we see suspension rates going down. We've even seen racially disproportionate discipline of African-Americans eliminated in some of our schools," said program manager David Yusem.

A researcher from Florida sat in on this interview with KPIX 5, as this form of discipline gets national attention.

Principal Pasarow says the bottom line, "Punishing the bad out of kids doesn't work."

But this approach is not necessarily touchy-feely either. "It's a lot more difficult than being punished. To have to sit across the circle from the person you harmed," Yusem said.

They don't see many repeat offenders, maybe because what students learn in the circle they're using in the halls.

"They get to understand what they did wrong and what the other person did wrong. They get to come up with agreements of what they can do better," said student Theodore Mates-Muchin.

Restorative justice is in 27 of the district's 86 schools. The district wants to expand the approach into more elementary schools next year. The state still mandates suspension for incidents of sexual assault, or bringing a weapon or drugs to school.

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